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The Quantified Self: Using Tech To Become More Efficient

“Know thyself,” Socrates insisted. He’d have had a ball with cloud-based apps and services that churn out every statistic and graph we can possibly imagine about our health, routines, computer use, finances, and travels. And he’d surely laud the power users who use this data to modify or “hack” their behavior and effect positive changes in their day-to-day lives. Have you ever used to save money or run around with an activity tracker like Fitbit or the Nike+ Fuelband? If so, you’re already part of the Quantified Self movement.

It’s natural to think about self-improvement through technology, particularly in the afterglow of New Year’s Resolution-making time. Maybe you’ve installed Gympact to motivate you to stick to your workout regimen, or are getting competitive with fitness apps like Strava.

But what if your goal is a little more professional in nature? Perhaps you just want to save a little time each day, become a more reliable communicator and collaborator, or provide more constructive feedback as a manager. The same cloud-based technologies that grant us access to insightful, idiosyncratic personal data can give us tools for the enterprise and the home office as well.

Quantifying Performance

If we make it so, many of our work behaviors can be measured, analyzed, and improved. Of course, the easiest-to-use tools require little to no active input from users while passively tracking our routines.

tenXer is a software platform that pulls individual usage data from a slew of tools that many knowledge workers use everyday like Gmail, calendars, Twitter, and even GitHub (a popular tool for software developers). It pulls the data into easily-digestible charts that show everything from how many lines of code were written to how many hours were spent in meetings and writing emails. Each work output carries productivity weight. Managers can compare the productivity stats of their teams and provide positive feedback for personal bests, in an attempt to turn improvement into a game.

“Numbers and statistics motivate people to get better at sports and we can use them to get better at our jobs too,” says tenXer CEO Jeff Ma.

But even if you’re not looking to turn your daily grind into a numbers game, you can still glean a lot of data with very little effort from the tools you already use. If you use Gmail, Google Drive or even Google Search (and so very many of us do), you can hone in on some salient facts presented via clean Google-like interfaces. For instance, Account Activity will show you your top search queries and search types, and your most-met contacts for Google Calendar acceptances. Google Apps Script Gmail Meter can tell you anything you want to know about your email behavior, including your top correspondents, response times, word counts, and hourly/daily/weekly patterns. The Spanning Stats Chrome browser extension beautifully visualizes how you use the contents your Google Drive over time.

Admittedly, the idea of interpreting statistics without a very specific set of recommendations for improvement can seem daunting. It isn’t always clear what you’re supposed to do with your personalized set of workflow data. If you’re up for an adventure, maybe you’ll consider a more emergent, artificial intelligence-based approach to time management. Saga is an app for your whole day, not just the time spent in front of the computer. Once you’ve installed it on your smartphone, it will track your location without you opening the app to input your position, and learn what you’re doing in each spot. After some time, you can take a look at your history and see where you go most frequently, but the app also starts to help you become more efficient: it will see that you are going to work, determine there’s a lot of traffic, and recommend a new route without you asking. It might one day tell you that you haven’t been to the grocery store or laundromat in three weeks.

Saga’s trick is looking at your “quantified self” data and telling you what to do with it. It certainly hasn’t reached its full potential yet, but it helps you imagine a future where Google could potentially send you a notification like “When you send your boss emails after 4pm they usually go unanswered except on Mondays. Email him before noon for the highest response rate. Oh, and don’t forget to include the attachment this time.”

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